Early Sunday morning, San Francisco International Airport switched its air traffic control operations to a new tower.

Rising up between terminals 1 and 2, the new tower stands 221 feet tall — and offers controllers a 650-square-foot work area with unobstructed 235-degree views of the airport’s runways and taxiways.

In unveiling the new tower last week, federal aviation authorities, local airport officials and air traffic controllers hailed it as an iconic design and the result of unprecedented collaboration between federal and local interests.

The tower cost just over $150 million to design and build. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contributed $80 million for construction, but SFO covered the rest and oversaw the design.

The new tower at San Francisco International Airport.
The new tower at San Francisco International Airport. (Brian Watt/KQED)

FAA chief Michael Huerta said that when a tower is built at an airport, his agency takes care of design, construction and the entire bill — but SFO is different.

“The FAA was looking for a tower that would be functional and ensure safety and efficiency. San Francisco was looking for a tower that would reflect the city, its unique culture and everything that San Francisco has to offer,” Huerta told KQED. “I think we’ve accomplished both of those things.”

FAA chief Michael Huerta in the new tower.
FAA chief Michael Huerta in the new tower. (Brian Watt/KQED)

Airport and federal aviation officials said the new tower was necessary because the old one, which was 32 years old, did not meet current seismic standards and couldn’t be retrofitted practically.

Frederick Naujoks, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and a seven-year veteran at SFO, said the controllers had a lot of input into the new tower’s design and the placement of important equipment.

“There’s a lot of equipment that we started to get installed in the old tower but that this [new] tower is designed for,” Naujoks said, pointing to ground surveillance radar as an example. “It’s laid out much more ergonomically to where you can use the equipment and still look out the windows at the same time.”

 Frederick Naujoks, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and a seven-year veteran at SFO
Frederick Naujoks, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and a seven-year veteran at SFO. (Brian Watt/KQED)

And the look out the window itself is a lot better, Naujoks added.

“We wanted to make this such that the tower controller — the one talking to the planes as they are landing and departing — had to move as little as possible, so they could see as much as possible from one position,” Naujoks told KQED.

Since it’s located between Terminals 1 and 2, travelers can pass by the base of the tower — and maybe take a photo of it shooting straight up through ceiling windows — without being able to access the tower itself. It includes a three-story base building that houses administrative offices, computer equipment and a backup generator.

The tower also includes a 147-foot-tall glass ribbon running down its center. The ribbon reflects sunlight during the day but can be lit up from the inside at night with different colors.

SFO Cuts Ribbon on New Air Traffic Control Tower 17 October,2016Jessica Placzek

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor